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Glen Garioch Founder’s Reserve

Surprising, isn’t it, that I haven’t posted any notes of my most significant distillery, my more-than-whisky distillery, or what I suppose others call their favourite distillery? Expressions are hard to come by and I wasn’t blown away by their new 12yo. Whilst pleasantly sweet, citrussy and peppery, I always suspected this, the Founder’s Reserve and restorative-and-a-half at the distillery in April last year, was the more rewarding dram.

The new entry-level expression following the relaunch in late 2008, this has no age statement but is non-chillfiltered and bottled at 48% abv. It’s potent stuff and boasts its ex-Bourbon maturation. I filled a little sample flask from my 70cl bottle – purchased by my aunt for my 20th birthday – earlier in the year so that I might have some Glen Garioch in St Andrews when the anniversary of my Aberdeenshire purgatory and redemption struck, and it was what I sipped at the end of last month as we raced away from St Andrews and the end of my first year there for the Rush Time Machine concert which was taking place in Newcastle that night. In short, it has featured in a few singular moments over the last fourteen months or so.

Glen Garioch Founder's ReserveGlen Garioch Founder’s Reserve 48% abv. £29

Colour – Rich full gold with peachy tones.

Nose – At first, sugary-sweet draff/worts notes and sticky but firm honeycomb. More cerealy draff appears with a stab of alcohol then medium grade dark chocolate. I always detect a strawberry note and it is joined here by a sweet nuttiness. Crumbly earthiness and hedgerow berries. Very clean and citrussy with good body to it.

      Water lightens the spectrum although the oakiness becomes richer with more toffee and creamy vanilla shortbread. Stewed red fruits appear with sweet malt and dryness. Stem ginger and lemon boiled sweets. Chunks of butterscotch. A bit more time reveals heather honey, toasted oak and strawberry jam. Overall very chunkily malty.

Palate – Rich malt and oak, then lighter cereal sweetness and a flash of clean citrus. Spicy. Red fruits and red apples emerge.

      Water makes for a richer and even fruitier experience. We begin with fruitcake although this morphs into slightly burnt oat biscuits. Lemony and syrupy notes come in later with more stewed fruit.

Finish – Chocolatey and biscuity. Soft malt with the dryish draff note from the nose reappearing. Honey on thick toast. Clean and firm.

      Water accentuates a smoothness and juiciness. Things become heathery with some delicate sweet spice from the oak. Vanilla and cinnamon, too. Stewed fruits and especially apple. Caramel and citrus.

I don’t go into the cupboard for this dram terribly often, but when I do it always surprises me. The barley malt profile is deep and complex, with a fruitiness, earthiness, caramel sweetness yet also dustiness. It is a shame Glen Garioch no longer malts its own barley but I can imagine the atmosphere of aromas that must have existed when it did, just by nosing this whisky. That dustiness is something I noted with the 1991 Vintage and I’m not sure how to account for it: it is at once a note which distinguishes it from other Highland malts but is also slightly alien at first.

Following my unforgettable experiences to get there last year, and the very different kind of tour I received once I arrived, my spiritual side wants to explore more of the whiskies from Glen Garioch. Matt and Karen at Whisky For Everyone have just tasted the new 1994 Vintage, and John Hansell at What Does John Know? has recently opened a 21yo from the 1970s as one of his very special drams. As is the case with these oft-overlooked single malts, there are many incarnations kicking around that are just astonishingly good. That they are oft-overlooked does mean, however, that those who do apprehend their potential and charm have a greater chance of being rewarded for their faith.

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Glen Garioch – One-Year-Old(meldrum)

A view from the dry warmth of the visitor centre last April.

A view from the dry warmth of the visitor centre last April.

Henceforth, ’one year ago…’ moments shall occur to me on an almost daily basis. They may never have come to pass, however, had it not been for my guardian angels who abstained from supping Scotch whisky vapour long enough to manifest themselves at Glen Garioch, Aberdeenshire. To commemorate this date twelve months ago I thought I would post up a piece which I submitted to John Hansell’s blog for consideration in his guest-blogger season last September. Although I was frustratingly unsuccessful in that particular journalistic bid, I have retained the article so that, today, it may serve as the narrative silver lining to my north-east Highland rain clouds.

I rolled out of Dufftown, making headway into the first of the day’s sixty miles. Snow flurries mutated into persistent rain and little strips of asphalt became the A96. I had chosen to ignore the look my hotelier had given me when I told him I was taking the main road between Aberdeen and Inverness to Oldmeldrum. For ten miles I didn’t so much cycle as self-preserve, hunted by oil industry executives in their BMWs and blasted by the bow waves of air from gargantuan trucks, none of whom were about to touch the brakes for a squidgy cyclist.

Exhausted and petrified I swung off the motorway at the sign for Oldmeldrum, the rain still falling lazily, the rolling arrow-straight roads of Aberdeenshire taunting my cracked, foggy brain. Every last inch of me was dripping and squelching. My bike, on account of the spray, muck and frenzied pedalling of the A96, was disturbing the peace in Hades with its creaking, squeaking and rattling. My personal fuel warning light had been on for the last fifteen miles and I splashed into the distillery car park not entirely alive. I knew, however, and with grim certainty, that if I didn’t get my cycling gear dried somehow, when I came to leave the distillery after my tour for the return leg to Huntly I would depart this mortal coil, as well – long before the trucks could have a second crack at me on the motorway.

Resembling a refugee more than a participant on her next tour, I begged the lady in the visitor’s centre for a hot radiator.

“Go across to the stillroom and say Jane sent you to dry some things,” she said.

The very accommodating stillroom.
The very accommodating stillroom.

I stumbled back out into the rain to the still house where I found the stillman reading his newspaper. I mumbled my message from Jane and he pointed to a clothes rack stationed behind the spirit still. With the last of my strength I wrenched off my saturated clothing and turned the stillroom at Glen Garioch into my own personal launderette.

Back across the road in the visitor’s centre, Jane made me a cup of tea and I was taken round the distillery by tour guide Fiona. As we approached the glowing stills, the point at which my semi-nudity had featured unexpectedly in her previous tour, Fiona joked that she had considered whether or not to inform her two visitors who had also witnessed my disrobing that half-naked cyclists were pivotal to the final Glen Garioch flavour.

After the tour we discussed with Jane my travel ambitions, mishaps and fears, of which there were many at that moment. It was partly the bone-dry clothes, but mostly their encouragement that meant I had a smile on my face when I left Oldmeldrum and still had one when I later arrived in Huntly.

Would my Glen Garioch experience have been drastically different had I undertaken my journey in invigorating spring sunshine? It is, to all intents and purposes, a redundant question – one pretending to a rationality and design entirely absent from the minute-to-minute experience of my Odyssey. It rained, I chose a despicable road, I had a crisis, I was restored. That’s pretty much it.

When will be the 'right time'...?

When will be the 'right time'...?

Except, of course, it isn’t. Not by a long way. As I excavated my bottle of the 1990 Small-batch Release from the drinks cabinet, my entire tour could be appraised in 70 centilitre form. As I had reason to remark to my charming Swedish neighbour on a recent train journey, Scotch whisky has at once assumed positions in the micro and the macro of my life. Nothing is ‘just’ a dram – drinking is not simply consumption but a form of communion with a very particular form of spirit. Glen Garioch will always abide in my memory – like the mircoflora in a wooden washback – because it created a unique, intoxicating blend of circumstance, humanity and history: a sequence of unrepeatable malt moments. Friday, April 23 2010 surpassed all previous expectations for how whisky could inspire me to singular efforts, as well as the extent to which it and the people involved in it could reward them. Therefore, whilst my powers of recollection do not strictly require a material object, my 1990 bottling is as good a manifestation as I can come up with for now of these complex amalgamations of whisky and wonder.

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Back to the Valley of the Garioch

Glen Garioch

Although I observed many new distilleries from the car, distilleries which the route of my Odyssey had not approached – Dalwhinnie, Tormore, Auchroisk, Glenallachie, Strathmill to name a few – and many familiar ones which our voyaging took us past repeatedly - Aberlour, The Macallan, Craigellachie, Glenfiddich – there was to be only one distillery tour this holiday.

It was shear blind and baffling luck that so many significant people and properties within the context of my tour as a whole should be indigenous to a readily accessible area of some 50 square miles. Had this privileged region been in Caithness then I would still have insisted we make the journey, however. The attenuated dog leg that links Tomintoul, Dufftown and Oldmeldrum was my malt-related magnet and my first significant pilgrimage was to the last of these settlements.

Roughly a month after I hung up my panniers I phoned Glen Garioch and was fortunate enough to have Jane lift the receiver. Thrilled to speak with her again, and doubly so that she apparently remembered me, I promised that we would be up again in the not too distant future and to that end, I asked if she could set aside a bottle of the 1990 Vintage. I was anxious not to miss out on what my subsequent reflections on my Odyssey rendered a highly symbolic, venerated and desired artefact. Several weeks later I contacted her again to book my family on a VIP Tour.

Frankly unbelievably, the weather was ominously reminiscent of my first foray from Moray to Aberdeenshire on the 23rd of April. Whilst we did not encounter snow on the bare tarmac out of Dufftown, rain threatened throughout our race along the A96 and more pleasant sweep along smaller A-roads to Oldmeldrum. So vivid were the reminders of that day, so unnervingly similar were the colour palette and light quality. Every stopping point, every side turning, every enraged bellowed expletive and herd of startled livestock from five month’s ago hovered before my mind’s eye. It was quite uncanny. I doled out pity on my past self as we reached the roundabout at the entrance to Oldmeldrum and navigated the uphill arc of road to the top of the town. Upon arriving I’m aware only of sprinting about the site with my camera, capturing the place in a manner I had neither at first the trust in my equipment’s waterproofing, then energy and finally inclination to attempt in April.Glen Garioch VC

Jane was, suitably, the first face I glimpsed as I entered the visitor centre. The locus of so much surprising joy, I was yet again astonished by how familiar it all was, right down to the paper map of Scotland on the wall, on which I had traced for Fiona and Jane the destinations my tour had still to reach.

From what I could gather, the pre-tour video had been updated. Now there were ample close-ups of the repackaged range interspersed with segments illustrating Glen Garioch’s history and production methods. On the way out of the door to begin our observations of these processes first-hand, Fiona appeared. She was forthcoming, not with a hand to shake, but with open arms. Such is Fiona’s gregarious personality, but also impressive tact: a hug on the occasion of my last visit would not have been at all pleasant.

We left the sustaining glow of the casements of whisky in the visitor centre with Jane as our guide. She turned to me as our little group was ruffled by a blast of Aberdeenshire air, laden with rain drops. “We’re blaming this on James,” she said. “That’s only fair,” I replied.

Whereas previously I had been shepherded across the courtyard and the road to the maltings, Jane had an alternative destination for our party. In the renovated Exciseman’s hut – The Wee Bothy – we were welcomed to Glen Garioch in style, with a nip of the Clearac.

My parents in the charming Wee Bothy, formerly the exciseman's hut. An evil lair converted into a merrier space.

My parents in the charming Wee Bothy, formerly the exciseman's hut. An evil lair converted into a merrier space.

Having been informed that spirit yields at the distillery were pleasing everyone, the distillate pouring through the safe in greater quantities and at a higher strength, Jane produced a bottle of colourless liquid and poured a measure into nosing glasses. I have been fortunate enough over my travels to taste the new make of a number of distilleries and a wander round a still room will introduce every tourist to its distinctive aroma. The Glen Garioch stuff is delicious, though. The fragrance was typical of unaged malt whisky: sweet, fruity and with plenty of squeaky, rounded intensity. Stewed apples and strawberries could be distinguished from this: suggesting themselves from the richness and fullness of the drink’s body and its raw sharpness. On the palate the barley sugar grist is evident. It is very clean and yet mouthcoating, clinging to the tongue and gums with a green apple flavour and despite its strength of 72.5% abv, it didn’t blow your head off. With more aeration, Hobnob biscuit notes emerged on the nose.

The maltings, our next point of interest, appeared a great deal warmer following our dose of new make. They have been mothballed since 1993, when the last batch of Glen Garioch-made malt was shovelled off the kiln floor. After Suntory’s take over, and a tense time for the future of the distillery, the company elected to preserve, re-invest and raise the fortunes of Glen Garcioh. The maltings were cleaned up, and for six weeks in 1999 they operated again to check that all of the machinery still worked properly. It did, so there shall continue be rumours that the malting process could once more take place on-site. There is no small amount of experience as to how it is done within the Morrison Bowmore group, either: Bowmore distillery malts its own, and indeed some of the staff were off to Islay the day after my visit for a change of scene.Glen Garioch Maltings

Our smaller tour group made it easier for Jane to reveal some of Glen Garioch’s nooks and crannies. The first of these was the kiln itself. We were allowed through a low door on one side of the kiln fire and could take in the sooty darkness of the construction, the fine mesh floor and the ventilation fan just visible.

We climbed a highly vertiginous wrought-iron spiral staircase and peeked at the mill, the malt bins and the kiln floor. It was a real privilege to see behind the scenes at a malt whisky distillery, because when its original features are preserved, as they are at Glen Garioch, it is a glimpse back in time.

The mash house and tun room were familiar, as was the little white clothes rack behind the Spirit Still. I pointed this out to my parents, and Jane recounted for the benefit of the other people with us how these stills had performed as a life-saving laundry facility in addition to operating solely for the production of the water of life.

Jane and I reunited in my most unexpected launderette.

Jane and I reunited in my most unexpected launderette.

By now the wind and rain were a little more assertive, and our walk to the warehouse made us glad of its quiet stillness. This was what I had been especially looking forward to, and the sweet mustiness – a combination of earth and exhaling oak – was a glorious re-induction to the realm of the angels. Following its closure in 1995, the warehouses were emptied and two years later, when Suntory decided to open it again, they were deemed unsafe. Three years of upgrade work, and casks could be matured at Glen Garioch again in 2000. Butts, barrels and hogsheads fell away into the fecund shadows, and I doubt I stopped smiling. Glen Grant and Longmorn casks were prevalent outsiders. Five casks from Yamazaki were very foreign indeed. These became visible as we made for the staircase down to the lower warehouse and their reasons for being in Aberdeenshire and not Japan was explained to us. Head office are curious as to what influence locality of maturation has on the final spirit. To that end, Suntory have gone further than experimenting between indigenous and central warehouses in the East and has taken eighteen casks from 2006 to Scotland, distributed between Auchentoshan, Bowmore and Glen Garioch. I would be fascinated to taste the results. Whether there is a conclusive difference only time will tell.

Yamazaki Casks

The final tasting back at the VC was appreciatively thorough. The core range of the Founder’s Reserve (buttery, sweet, malty, clean and fruity) and the new 12-year-old (more citrussy, softer and deeper) were explored first, followed by a measure of the new 1991 Small Batch Release (£65) which had been launched in June. At cask strength, this was dusty and rich on the nose, giving way to more phenolic notes (wood smoke and coal dust-esque and industrial) with water. Dry and warm with firm maltiness on the palate with pungent, spicy peatiness continuing into the finish. I wonder how close my 1990′s profile matches this. I was glad to see it emerge from the back room, all stocks having sold out at the distillery. It had been a wise move to set one aside.

After wishing my favourite ladies all the very best, we departed in the by then seriously heavy rain. As we glided away from Oldmeldrum, conditions now identical to those of the return leg to Huntly on April 23, I looked upon my souvenir of that day and the subsequent weeks made possible by Jane and Fiona’s humour and encouragement, sat in the footwell. It will be a wonderful reminder of those forty-one incredible and challenging days, but it shall also remind me of the return visit which I’m delighted and amazed to assert had an equally powerful, lasting effect on me.

L-R: Fiona, myself and Jane, plus my 70 centilitres of drama, revelation and triumph. It was extraordinary to reflect on my undertaking with the comfort of dry clothes.

L-R: Fiona, myself and Jane, plus my 70 centilitres of drama, revelation and triumph. It was extraordinary to reflect on my undertaking with the comfort of dry clothes.

The Glen Garioch VIP Tour: £20; 90 minutes (approx.) duration

THERE SHALL BE SOMETHING OF AN INDETERMINATE HIATUS AFFLICTING THE SCOTCH ODYSSEY BLOG AND FOR THAT I APOLOGISE. I’VE JUST STARTED AT UNIVERISTY, HOWEVER, AND TIME IS IN SHORT SUPPLY. I HOPE TO BRING YOU MORE ACCOUNTS OF MY HOLIDAY AS SOON AS POSSIBLE.

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